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Scariest 70s Horror Movies

The grit and grime of 70s cinema transforms the scariest horror movies of the era into instant classics.

By Isaac ShapiroPublished 8 years ago 9 min read

70s cinema became dominated by the American New Wave or New Hollywood. Lead by a new generation of baby boomer filmmakers, the American New Wave forever changed the world of cinema. These filmmaking mavericks took the authorial role away from the studios and placed it squarely in their own hands. Bringing new levels of sex and violence while pushing boundaries, the mavericks of the 70s also brought this approach to the horror arena, making some of the best films the genre had ever seen. Deviating from stock tropes and cliche norms, this new wave of horror films took cinematic terror in a new direction. Filmmakers like William Friedkin, Ridley Scott, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter rose to prominence and forever changed what audiences should be expect from film. Watch the scariest 70s horror movies and try to keep the lights off... if you can.

Wes Craven's brutal masterpiece of sadistic revenge has become one of the most iconic films of the era. It was censored in many countries upon release, and it was also banned throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The movie centers on two teenage girls trapped by a deranged group of escaped criminal rapists while on their way to a concert. After killing the girls, the criminals make the mistake of taking refuge in one of the victims' homes—the titular Last House on the Left. It is there where the killers enact cathartic revenge that had viewers talking for decades after the film's debut. This film secured Craven as one of the best directors to ever work in the genre of horror. The Last House on the Left personified the nation's biggest fears during the 1970s.

Suspira is often considered the signature masterpiece of master horror director Dario Argento, as well as the pinnacle of the giallo horror movement. It also was the first piece of what would become Argento's Three Mothers trilogy. The second installment, Inferno, was released in 1980 while the final film, Mother of Tears, entered theaters in 2007. Of all Argento's films, Suspira became of his most financially and critically successful, as it was nominated for two Saturn awards. The film deals with an American ballet student who transfers to a prestigious dance academy in Germany. She soon finds to her horror that the academy is not what it appears, as many of her fellow classmates are murdered by mysterious supernatural forces. She is forced to confront the dark evil that lies at the heart of the academy to save her own soul. Any fan of horror would be remiss to pass up on seeing this defining classic of Italian horror. The the amazing score by punk band Goblin should appeal to all kinds of music junkies.

John Carpenter's classic, Halloween, inspired the entire slasher genre, which was surprising thanks to its indie budget of only $300,000. Many of the tropes that permeate slasher films originated in Halloween; everything from the nearly-supernatural killer murdering promiscuous teens to the virgin survivor girl all trace their roots back to this particular release. This film turned Carpenter into a superstar horror director and spawned a franchise that has created seven sequels. The series turned Michael Meyers into a cultural icon. The story is simple: Psychotic inmate Michel Meyers escapes from his asylum to stalk and wreak havoc on innocent teens on Halloween night. Despite some controversy, it has endured as the iconic poster child of 70s horror. It has become so culturally significant that it was selected to be preserved in the United States National Film registry by the Library of Congress in 2006.

At this point the legacy of The Wicker Man is more famous for the Neil Labute remake featuring Nicolas Cage screaming, "Not the Bees!" than the iconic original. However, the original film remains the Citizen Cane of horror movies. Total Film magazine went as far as naming the original Wicker Man the sixth greatest British film of all time. The story involves a police detective who investigates a missing girl on an island inhabited by a cult of Neo Pagans. He soon finds out that they are planning on using her as a sacrifice to remedy their failing crops. He soon learns that the cult plans to use him as the sacrifice instead. The Wicker Man takes a chilling look at unbridled religious zealotry. These elements solidify The Wicker Man as an unmissable classic that has more bearing on our contemporary world than we'd like to admit, while also remaining one of the scariest 70s horror movies.

Tourist Trap is the definition of a cult classic. Initially discarded upon release, the film managed to find an audience for its baroque form of horror years later. Master horror writer Stephen King says Tourist Trap "wields an eerie spooky power, as wax figures begin to move and come to life in a ruined, out-of-the-way tourist resort." SOURCE? This film takes the often-parodied notion of American tourism and transforms it into a new kind of terror. A group of college students on a road trip encounter an eerie attraction filled with life-like mannequins. Soon, these partying students learn that they may become the next selection of creepy figures. While cheesy, this film still has a terrifying staying power.

Brian De Palma's twisted version of Steven King's classic coming of age parable, Carrie, remains a piece of terror for the ages. Scenes like the prom massacre and the pouring of the pig's blood still resonate in pop culture psyche. The film revolves around Carrie, a socially awkward teenage girl stuck with her Christian fundamentalist mother. She is taunted by her fellow classmates, but what they don't know is that Carrie develops telekinetic powers. Eventually she unleashes her psychic rage upon her bullying classmates. Carrie was the first of what would become many wildly popular King adaptations.

Tobe Hooper introduced the world to the recognizable character of Leatherface, the cannibalistic chainsaw-wielding maniac of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974. Inspired by the infamous serial killer Ed Gain, Hooper created Leatherface based on Gain's real murders. Leatherface and the rest of his cannibalistic clan serve as weird inversions of the classic American nuclear family. This ideological element is evident during the notable dinner scene, in which several teen hitchhikers are forced to endure a meal while Leatherface serves up human flesh while dressed in an apron. Hooper famously made the film for less than $300,000 but it went on to gross over $30 million world-wide and inspire several modern remakes.

The tradition of holiday horror films is a long one, with just about every major holiday receiving the slasher treatment. One of the earliest grandfathers of this sub-genre is the original Black Christmas. Despite not making much of an impact when it was first released, Black Christmas has gone on to become a cult classic. The film revolves around a sorority that is stalked and killed by a mysterious murderer in the attic. The story was inspired by an old urban legend, but still resonates with today's audiences. If you're looking for the grit and grime of the 1970s in combination with a grotesque take on holiday cheer, then this is the Christmas movie for you.

Easily one of the classiest films on this list that helped build up to 80s horror, The Omen tells the charming story of a family who adopted the antichrist. Famous superman director Richard Donner helmed this masterpiece of suspense and horror. Unlike many of the other films on this list, The Omen managed to break out of its small genre to receive widespread acclaim. Donner's work received two academy award nominations and won for "Best Score." The film also hit #16 on Bravo's "100 Scariest Movie Moments." Unsurprisingly, the popular film spawned numerous sequels and remakes.

William Friedkin's 70s hit and eternal classic The Exorcist has also secured a spot on the list. The film is based on William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel of the same name. The Exorcist follows a pair of priests who attempt to perform an exorcism on a possessed girl. Declared a masterpiece in the larger genre of horror, the film is preserved in the national film registry. The Exorcist had a notoriously difficult production period, with some crew members claiming that the set had been cursed. An actor's son was hit by a motorbike during shooting, giving the film a doubly infamous reputation.

George Romero may have invented the zombie genre with Night of the Living Dead, but Dawn of the Dead perfected it. In this classic zombie film several survivors barricade themselves inside a mall to outlive the zombie apocalypse. A blistering satire on consumer culture ensues as the zombies flock to the mall. The film is a subversive metaphor for how consumption transforms people into zombies. These not-so-subtle observations have become a hallmark of Romero's filmmaking, and they all make Dawn of the Dead one of the best horror movies of the 70s.

Steven Spielberg redefined the cinematic landscape with the first-ever summer blockbuster, Jaws. This film transformed the movie-going experience into an event while also changing the business of filmmaking itself. Studios now focus on profit-generating epics like Jaws in an effort to duplicate its success. A great white shark terrorizes a small beach town during the busiest month of summer. Thanks to John Williams's iconic score and Steven Spielberg's masterful directing, Jaws transcends its predictable conventions to become a master-class thriller that others strive to imitate.

Ridley Scott's Sci-fi horror Alien is a towering achievement. Scott's direction took what could have been just another conventional horror film into a classic that still resonates with today's audiences. Its special effects still hold up, as well as the borderline documentary-style for the production of all the crew scenes. You don't feel like your watching a bunch of actors pretending to be explorers, but rather a group of space truckers going about their daily routine. H. R. Giger's iconic creature design for the alien Xenomorph influenced later supernatural designs. The Xenomorph is fitted with so much psycho-sexual imagery that it has remained firmly entrenched within the pop culture mindset. Alien is certainly a must-watch.

There's no better filmmaker in the genre of body horror than David Cronenberg. While Cronenberg has stayed avoided horror in his most recent work, his best films were released in the 70s and the 80s. One of his best and earliest films is Brood. The film is also noteworthy for featuring a score by Howard Shore, who would go on to become one of the most respected composers to work in Hollywood. Shore handled scores for The Lord of the Rings and other major motion pictures. Brood's plot revolves around a husband who tries to treat his wife's trauma with a radical new therapy technique. This new technique, however, causes his wife to harbor a brood of killer children who massacre anyone in sight. The film is packed with many nuanced layers of horror bound make anyone's skin crawl.

Out of all the horror franchises to come from the 70s and 80s, Phantasm is perhaps the weirdest. Written, directed, photographed, and edited by Don Cascarlelli, Phantasm revolves around a pair of friends experiencing the malevolent supernatural threat of the mysterious Tall Man. Tall Man is an undertaker with the ability to transform the dead into dwarf like-zombies under his command. He also has two deadly orbs, which he uses to terrorize the local town's population. The film was made as a largely independent passion project with most of its cast and crew consisting of amateurs. Thanks to the film's surreal imagery, it has spawned a devout cult following and four sequels, making it one of the most enduring scary films from the 70s.


About the Creator

Isaac Shapiro

When not scrounging the internet for the best content for Jerrick Media, Isaac can be found giving scritches to feathery friend Captain Crunch.

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